Lesbian minister Jane Spahr retires
by Kris Larson
The Reverend Dr. Jane Adams Spahr retired last weekend from the Presbyterian ministry after more than 30 years of activism in the church. Spahr, who is an out lesbian, has dedicated much of her life to building relationships: between progressive and conservative elements in the church, between LGBT people and their families, and between individuals.
"Relationships matter, because they're what really change the world," Spahr said at her retirement party on July 21, according to a statement.
The party, attended by about 50 people, was held at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. The Presbyterian Church, like many mainstream denominations, continues to grapple with the role of out LGBT people in the ministry.
Spahr, 64, has a rich, soothing voice that seems designed to carry her message of tolerance and peace. In a phone interview this week, she discussed her many years of work in the LGBT community with warmth and humor.
"Thank God for our humor," she said. "How else do you get through some of the agony, when we watch the tortured progress of our folks struggling to be?"
By "our folks," Spahr sometimes refers to LGBT people, sometimes to Presbyterians, and sometimes to all groups who have been marginalized. Spahr said her work has been on behalf of all second-class citizens.
"Jesus talked about the disparity of rich and poor, and that women were people and not property," Spahr said. "Anyone treated second-class ... that is not possible with any God I know."
In 1974, Spahr was the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She went on to work for the Oakland Council of Churches, but when she came out as a lesbian she was forced to resign her position. She later served as a minister at the Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis.
Spahr, who shared stories from her coming out process as a minister, wife, and mother of two sons, noted that her former husband is one of her strongest supporters. She has often said that he told her he knew she was a lesbian before she knew herself.
Spahr didn't let the resignation stop her. In 1982, she founded the Spectrum Center, Marin County's LGBT community center. The Spectrum Center provides HIV awareness training and support, youth counseling, and political advocacy. Spahr worked with the group for more than 10 years.
Spectrum Center sponsored last weekend's retirement party, along with the Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion.
Spahr's road in the Presbyterian Church continued to be a rocky one. In 1991, she was invited to serve as the co-pastor of the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. However, church officials would not allow an out lesbian to take the job.
Undaunted, Spahr worked with the Rochester Church to create That All May Freely Serve. The group advocates for LGBT rights within the Presbyterian Church, using Spahr as an ambassador. She has traveled all over the country on behalf of the group, meeting with churches, college groups, and seminaries.
Spahr tries to deal with her opponents by getting to know them and letting them get to know her. "I say: who do you love, who's your family, who loves you? And then I talk about my family and who I love and who we are."
Though some conservative groups use the Bible as a supporting text for homophobia, Spahr has a different way of looking at it. "I'm not a literalist," she said. "I take the Bible seriously, I don't take it literally, as a rabbi friend of mine says."
Several of the people who attended Spahr's retirement party spoke about the important part she'd played in helping families to embrace and celebrate their LGBT members, according to a news release from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. Still, after many years of service, Spahr said that she is ready to retire.
"It was really an issue of 'go while you still love it,'" she said in the interview. "There are so many wonderful people coming along. We're in a different place now. We have lots of work to do, but there are great people who will carry this on with wonderful skill. I've had such a great time, and it's time to pass the ball."
For more information on That All May Freely Serve, visit http://www.tamfs.org.